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Kawai Shiu’s keyboard is a piano, but a wreck, or as he puts it, “a prepared condemned piano.” This deeply moving experimental work was inspired by the devastating 2011 tsunami disaster in Japan, specifically a description of a piano keyboard that had washed up on shore, its voice ripped out. This is as much poetry as it is music, albeit of a very anguished nature.


Sparked by a colleague’s encounter with the destroyed remnants of a piano washed onshore after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, for loss can be read as a requiem for those affected by the natural disaster as well as a swan song of abandoned instruments. Shiu searched long and hard for a suitable “condemned piano.” Former ubiquitous status symbols in aspiring middle-class homes, countless upright pianos precisely manufactured to promise entertainment now languish in drafty barns and damp basements. Shiu has taken one such veteran with stuck keys and missing strings, and has built a monumental and gorgeous 62-minute essay through studio superimpositions and multi-tracking. In terms of construction, we ought to discuss this amongst ea works, except that the source material is distinctly piano. Shiu cajoles an endless variety of sounds, subtle and dramatic from the derelict instrument. We hear knocks, gongs and bells, semi-traditional prepared piano sounds, evocations of qin and cimbalom, broken melodies and pitchless mechanical chatter. There are 19 mostly short movements in the cycle, each centering around a particular capability of the deranged machine, although aspects and contours frequently reappear. Without knowing the title and the circumstance, it would be impossible to miss the alternation between menace and calm.




As much as this is my first post of the year I'd like to wish everybody success and happiness in 2015.

Today's post looks backward slightly to 2011, when a mammoth earthquake and tsunami hit Japan with a devastating blow. Composer Kawai Shiu was out of the country at the time but very much moved by photographic images of one of his colleagues (who was engaged in the work of cleanup and restoration) on a beach playing on a badly destroyed piano which had washed up with other debris in the wake of the cataclysm. It very much affected Shiu as a kind of symbol of the havoc wreaked.

In time he envisioned creating a work that dramatized the horror and grief he felt in concrete, performative terms. For Loss (ablaze 00012) gives us the music as he imagined it. It is for what the composer calls "a prepared condemned piano." Shiu set about to find a piano that was in as similar a state of extreme disrepair as the one that washed ashore. As you can see from the cover picture, the keyboard and strings are still there, but that is more or less all.

Shiu's work presents 19 sections that employ various means of sounding the damaged instrument, from playing on the carefully detuned-retuned strings in the conventional way to getting inside the strings with various objects, strumming and hitting them and, as again you can see from the cover, bowing a string that had become detached. I don't have the details on further preparation but the sound of the work tells us that there was a fair amount of it.

It is a kind of ritualized representation in sound of all that was lost in the disaster. It is more contemplative and sound-color oriented than it is expressionist. It in a way seeks to restore nature as a creative force, to make a mournful but ultimately positive musical statement about making good with what is left.

It is music of an otherworldly cast, paradoxically built from the ruins of the present to create what sounds like music of some ancient rite. Yes, there is great loss expressed in the work, but there is the transcendence of re-creation.

The work fascinates in its stark ritualized action. The more one listens, the more one gravitates toward the sounds so well thought-out by Kawai Shiu. It has a one-of-a-kind quality that is in the end a tribute to the bravery of those who got through the upheaval and surged forward to rebuild their lives.

In that, it is a work highly representational. All sounds have meaning yet are singular within themselves. Hearing is a moving experience. Listen!


This remarkable collection of 18 short pieces (less than five minutes) and one longer one (11 minutes) belongs to a special category of modern music. Kawai Shiu’s style is, in parts, experimental, impressionistic, jazzy, poetic, and devotional. The immediate impetus for this creation was the catastrophic tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The technical parameters of the music are inspired by a photograph that a friend of Shiu’s sent him, depicting the man seated before a piano keyboard that had washed up on a beach. “The keys moved reluctantly when I pushed them down, hard,” he wrote, “but refused to make a sound. I felt an unexplainable void and helplessness inside me.”

Shiu was haunted by the image, and also determined to find the sound that could represent that human disaster. He salvaged an old Russian upright that had the name “Tchaikovsky” and set about to prepare it—thus, his description of the instrument as a “prepared condemned piano.” Beyond that, there is no further technical information supplied about Shiu’s process. His miking is extremely vivid, probably inside of the instrument. There may be some digital manipulation going on as well, but this is just a guess. Perhaps Shiu is reticent about his technique because he doesn’t want it to get in the way of the message.

The work itself, even without the benefit of any visual stimulation, is as much theatrical as it is musical. I am strongly reminded of the work of Victoria Jordanova. Her Requiem for Bosnia for solo harp is similarly evocative and haunting, and also inspired by a gut-wrenching modern-day human tragedy. In both cases, even though the subjects that inspired the music are dreadful, the results are oddly compelling and even cathartic.


Born in 1967, Kawai Shiu is a prolific composer and teacher. He’s received awards from, among others, ASCAP, the Vienna Modern Masters, and the Frederic Goossen Memorial Composition Competition; has been commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival, Darlington Festival, and the Pacific Contemporary Music Festival; and has taught in universities from Australia to Brownsville, Texas. Up to now, I had only heard one of his works—a piece for violin, flute, clarinet, cello, and piano entitled winter tide, included in a collection of music by Chinese composers which I reviewed in Fanfare 22: 6. There I described his piece, albeit brief, as containing “a narrow selection of notes in a relatively static environment,” nevertheless offering “a surprising amount of drama.”

For Loss, by way of contrast, is an hour-long assemblage of 19 sections which flow together as if spontaneously conceived. Composed as a response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the coast of Japan in March 2011 (he calls it a “requiem ritualis”), it is performed on a Russian-made upright piano which had been partially destroyed and abandoned. Shiu found this “condemned” piano, then tuned and further prepared it, à la Cowell and Cage, in order to obtain a broader-than-usual range of timbres and percussive textures. Primarily austere, the music morphs through repetitious, pentatonic melodies, rippling arpeggiated cascades, and detached, rumbling detonations. But more importantly, the design and drama of the music is dependent upon Shiu’s performance techniques and the remarkable sound-producing qualities of the reworked instrument itself. Plucking, strumming, bowing, and scraping the strings, he obtains edgy metallic slivers and haunting resonant echoes; knocking and rattling the wood causes ominous growling, grinding, buzzing overtones to hover above the clatter. The effect is a depiction of destruction, decay, and desolation.

I don’t know if Shiu has considered turning For Loss into a ballet, but I can imagine bodies moving in response to these sounds, somewhat in the manner of Butoh dance or Kabuki theatre. On their own, the fascinating sonorities and sustained atmosphere plot an unconventional, but recognizably dramatic story, an artistic meditation on a catastrophe of Nature.


So I have to say that in general, I’m not a huge fan of conceptual art. It’s not that I object to it in principle; it’s just that I usually find that the more important the concept behind the art is, the less important will be the aesthetic impact of the art, and the result is usually art that is ideologically tendentious and ultimately boring. This applies whether the art in question is visual or musical. Kawai Shiu’s work for “prepared condemned piano” is deeply conceptual in nature — it was written in the wake of the 2011 Japanese tsunami and is designed both as a “contemplation of horror and tragedy” and as a symbolic act, using a partially-destroyed piano prepared with mechanical treatments in the style of John Cage — but it’s also sonically interesting and engaging. Using a variety of percussive, bowed, and conventional keyboard techniques, Shiu coaxes a huge range of sounds from his instrument and effectively communicates a sense of loss and tragedy while also making music that is both intellectually and aesthetically engaging.